Constitution

The house of representatives

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Republicanism

The US Constitution: Article I, section 2

“The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States . . . . Representatives . . . shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons . . . three fifths of all other Persons . . . .”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical background: When the original states were British colonies, their people were not directly represented in Parliament. The framers believed that the citizens of a republic must have a direct voice in choosing lawmakers, and they believed frequent elections were necessary to ensure that elected officials would be responsive to the people they represented. Thus, elections for the House were scheduled every two years. The composition of the House was based on population. More populous states like Pennsylvania received more representatives than Delaware. When the Constitution was written, slavery was legal in nearly all the states. Leaders from states with large numbers of slaves wanted slaves to be counted as full persons in order to increase their numbers in the House. Leaders from states with few or no slaves argued that slaves, as property, should not be counted. The “Three-Fifths Compromise” resolved that debate, though deeper questions about slavery and citizenship for African Americans would not be addressed for many years to come.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: The 3/5 Clause became obsolete after the nation abolished slavery in 1865. But the composition of the House is still based on population, and every ten years, the numbers shift slightly. The apportioning of seats in the House of Representatives is based on the United States Census, which is conducted every decade to determine the overall national population. Following the 2010 census, Texas and Florida (where the population had grown larger) gained seats, while Ohio and Illinois (where the population had shrunk) lost seats. When the next Census takes place in 2020, the same process will occur.

The commerce clause

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Federalism; Free Enterprise/Trade

The US Constitution: Article I, section 8

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States . . . ; To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes . . . “

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical Background: Following the War for Independence from Britain, the United States was governed by a document known as “The Articles of Confederation.” Under the Articles, the power of the national government was not great. The government could not raise taxes to pay its debts, and it could not prevent states from interfering with each other’s economic affairs. As a result, the national government was unable to deal with a variety of problems that plagued the nation. When the Constitution was drafted, the framers expanded the powers of Congress so that a stronger national government could address these questions. One of the powers given to Congress was the power to regulate trade between states, otherwise known as “interstate commerce.” This meant that one state could not prohibit someone from another state from doing business there; only Congress could regulate those activities. The Commerce Clause has been used over the years to regulate railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, and the internet, among other activities that crossed state lines.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: Because so much business is conducted today through the internet, a number of states have attempted to raise revenue by taxing online sales. Many companies, however, have argued that because internet “traffic” takes place across state lines, only Congress can tax or otherwise regulate online business. Many online businesses have filed suits against states like Ohio and Colorado, which have passed laws that those companies insist are unconstitutional. 

 

 

 

 

The electoral college

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Republicanism; Federalism

The US Constitution: Article II, section 1

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector….”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical Background: Although the Constitutional framers believed that government must represent the interests of the people, they did not necessarily believe that ordinary citizens possessed the wisdom to choose the President directly. Consequently, they created a system of “Electors,” who would be chosen by the individual states every four years to act on behalf of the country’s best interests. Each state would receive a different number of electors based on their representation in Congress, with larger states receiving more votes than smaller ones. Whoever received a majority of the votes in the so-called Electoral College would thereby become the President. At the time, some states chose their electors by holding a popular vote, while some electors were chosen by the legislatures. Eventually, nearly all states awarded their electoral votes on the basis of a popular referendum. But because the President is not chosen by a national popular vote, it is actually possible for a candidate to win a majority of electoral votes (270 out of 538) while earning fewer popular votes nationwide. This has happened five times, most recently in 2016.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: The Electoral College has been criticized over the years for being confusing and outdated. Many Americans believe a national popular vote would be simpler and would make more sense. In response to these criticisms, a number of states have passed bills that would potentially award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote (rather than the winner of the state vote). These laws would take effect once states with electoral votes totaling 270 — enough to win the election — have passed similar measures. This would guarantee that the winner of the national popular vote would become president.

Eligibility for President

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Federalism; Republicanism

The US Constitution: Article II, section 1

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States…”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical Background: Following the struggle for independence from Great Britain, American leaders frequently worried that the young nation might somehow fall under the influence of foreign governments. They not only worried that England might seek to re-establish its lost supremacy over much of North America, but they also expressed concerns about France and Spain, which still possessed colonies in the Western Hemisphere and would have eagerly acquired more if given the chance. The authors of the Constitution believed that a strong executive branch, with a strong president at its head, would facilitate greater national unity. To insulate that office from foreign influence, they restricted presidential eligibility to those who were “natural born” citizens — that is, born in the United States (or overseas to at least one parent who was an American citizen) — and who had lived in the country for a substantial portion of their lives.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: From time to time, presidential candidates face accusations that they do not meet the “natural born citizen” requirement. In 2008, for example, false rumors began to circulate that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya (rather than Hawaii), and was ineligible for the presidency. In 2016, Texas Senator Ted Cruz ran for president, even though he was born in Canada. Because his mother was an American citizen, however, there was no serious doubt that he was legally eligible to serve if elected.

“advice and consent”

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Federalism; Republicanism

The US Constitution: Article II, section 3

“…[the President] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law…”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical Background: Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government consisted of a single house of Congress. There were no independent executive or judicial branches with distinct responsibilities and powers to carry out or interpret the law. The Constitution altered that framework by creating three separate branches of government, but it also provided the means for each branch to exercise “checks and balances” over the others. In this section of the Constitution, for example, the president is granted the authority to appoint federal officers (including judges), but it specifies that he or she must do so with the “Advice and Consent” of the Senate. Although the Constitution does not provide any detail about what “Advice and Consent” actually meant, over time it became standard practice for the Senate to hold formal hearings to review presidential nominees before voting to approve or deny them. The Senate usually confirms the president’s nominees, but on occasion it has rejected them for one reason or another.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: When a new president is inaugurated in January 2021, he or she will have to fill numerous positions in the executive branch. The Senate will conduct hearings to examine the qualifications of these nominees. In addition, several Supreme Court justices are expected to retire in the next few years, which means that the new president and Senate will spend a lot of time reviewing candidates for important positions.

The veto power

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Federalism

The US Constitution: Article I, section 7

“Every bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States; if he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his objections to that House in which it shall have originated. . . If after such reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the bill, it shall be sent, together with the objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a law.”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical background: Under the British system of government, the King or Queen retained the absolute power to reject laws passed by Parliament. This means that he or she did not have to explain the reasoning behind the veto, nor did Parliament have the right to overturn the monarch’s decision. Under the Articles of Confederation, the veto power did not exist because there was no independent executive branch. Under the new Constitution, however, the President was given the authority — sometimes called the “revisionary power” — to overturn legislation passed by Congress. Since the framers were concerned about balancing the power of the three branches of government, it required the President to state (in writing) his or her reasons for using this authority. It also provided a means by which Congress could either rewrite the law to satisfy the President’s objections or override the veto with a 2/3 majority vote. This rule only comes into play occasionally. Congressional laws are rarely vetoed, and vetoed bills are rarely overridden.

Our Constitution in Action!

A Modern Example: George Washington, the first president, would also be the first to use the veto in 1792. The veto power was only occasionally used prior to the Civil War (with many not using it at all). Every president since 1881, however, has used the veto power more than once. President Obama vetoed fewer bills than any president since the early 1920s.

The composition of the senate

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Republicanism

The US Constitution: Article I, section 3

“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical Background: The British Parliament included two houses, one “upper” (the House of Lords) and one “lower” (the House of Commons). Members of the upper house received their positions by virtue of their social status and were not elected by the general public. Under the original design of the United States Constitution, one of houses of Congress was elected by the general public (the House of Representatives) while the other house (the Senate) was chosen by each state’s political elites. Moreover, the Senate consisted of two representatives from each state, which meant that all states were equally represented — unlike the House, where representation was based on population. The Senate was, in part, supposed to guarantee that smaller states with fewer people would not see their voices overwhelmed by the larger states. Senate terms were also longer (six years, as opposed to two in the House), which was expected to produce more continuity and stability in Congress. Over time, more Americans came to believe the process of choosing senators was not democratic. Following the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were elected directly by the people of each state.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: Many people argue that the Senate gives smaller states too much influence over the writing of the nation’s laws. Vermont, for example, with 625,000 residents, has just as much representation in the Senate as New York, its neighbor with more than 19 million people. That means that in the Senate, Vermont’s people are effectively represented 30 times more than a New Yorker.

Amending the constitution

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Republicanism; Federalism

The US Constitution: Article V

“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress…”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical background: Under the Articles of Confederation, the governing framework of the nation could only be altered by the unanimous agreement of all thirteen original states. This made it difficult for the national government to respond to changing economic or political circumstances, or to respond effectively in a time of great crisis. By the time the Constitution was written, most state legislatures permitted amendments to their own governing frameworks. The founders wanted a stable system and did not want to make it too easy to alter the Constitution, but they also did not want to create a system that was too rigid and inflexible. The result was a process that required any amendments to pass both houses of Congress with 2/3 majorities, before receiving the approval of 3/4 of the states themselves. Over the life of the Constitution, it has only been amended 27 times, with the first ten of these passing in 1791 as the so-called “Bill of Rights.” Over the years, the Constitution has been altered to abolish slavery, to protect voting rights for African Americans, to give women the right to vote nationwide, and to lower the voting age to 18.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: The last amendment to make its way into the Constitution was the 27th (1992), which prevented Congress from raising its own salaries during any current session. In recent years, political leaders have proposed a variety of additional amendments, including ones pertaining to flag desecration, abortion, gay rights, and the statehood of Washington, D.C. Proposed amendments rarely make their way through Congress, but they are a popular topic of discussion.

The judicial branch

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Federalism

The US Constitution: Article III, Sections 1-

“The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish . . . .

The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority . . . .”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical background: Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government had no judicial instrument to enforce US laws. Each state could interpret federal law as it saw fit. Or the states simply ignored the law and did as they pleased. This weakness led to conflicts between states that the federal government could not resolve. The Constitution established a judicial branch to rule on disputes between states, between citizens of different states, and other situations involving disagreement over federal law. However, Article III did not give detail about the size of the Supreme Court, the process for selecting justices, or the number of “inferior courts” that might arise. Instead, those decisions were left to Congress, which created nine regional courts and set the size of the high court at nine justices. Article III also did not explicitly give the Supreme Court the authority (known as “judicial review”) to judge the Constitutionality of any federal or state law, (or action on the part of the executive) but the founders generally assumed this would be among the Court’s powers, because it would allow the judiciary to “check” the actions of the other branches of government.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: The Supreme Court session lasts from October 1 until sometime in May or June. The Court receives about 7,000 requests every year, but only chooses to hear about 80 of these cases. Most years, the Court will issue rulings on questions related to freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, property rights, and the right to privacy, among many others. The decisions of the Court often have important consequences for all Americans.

The bill of rights

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Rights and Liberties; Republicanism; Federalism

The US Constitution: Amendment 1

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Why? So why did our founding fathers write it that way?

Historical Background: Before the American Revolution, colonists believed Parliament and the King had violated the individual liberties of its people. They had placed restrictions on the press; had denied colonists the right to be tried by juries of their peers; and had seized colonists’ property without due process of the law. During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, many people argued that the Constitution should include a list (a “bill”) of specific individual liberties that the national government would be obligated to protect. The framers of the Constitution promised to consider a list of amendments to specify which liberties would be protected. Congress considered dozens of changes but eventually settled on twelve. Ten of these were approved and ratified by the states in 1791. These first ten amendments became known as the “Bill of Rights.” These included protections of free speech; the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments”; the right to a trial by jury; and the right to “due process of law,” among others.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: Each year, the Supreme Court rules on cases involving liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. In 2016, for example, the Court ruled that a New Jersey police department violated the free speech rights of one of its officers by punishing him for delivering a political candidate’s yard sign to his mother. The police chief supported a rival candidate and demoted the officer. The Court ruled that the police officer’s actions were protected by the First Amendment.

 

 

 

The thirteenth amendment

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Rights and Liberties; Inclusion; Labor systems

The US Constitution: Amendment XIII

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Why? So why or how did the come to be?

Historical background: When the Constitution was written, slavery was legal throughout the nation, with the exception of a handful of states in New England. Although it did not use the word “slavery,” the Constitution actually protected the institution by allowing states to count their slaves as 3/5 of a person toward the apportionment of representatives in the House. This meant that states with large numbers of slaves received greater representation in Congress than states with few or no slaves, and it gave those states more electoral votes in the selection of the President. When the war ended, Congress and the States ratified the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery forever “except as punishment for crime” (a phrase that allowed states to sentence convicted criminals to periods of hard labor). This amendment helped guarantee that no person would be treated differently because of his or her race.

Our Constitution in Action!

A modern example: Although slavery has been abolished in the United States for more than 150 years, some forms of enslavement still exist in the world. The problem of “human trafficking” (illegally transporting people from other countries  for the purpose of labor or sexual exploitation) is one that countries like the United States and organizations like the United Nations have paid increasing attention to over the past decade. Because forced labor is illegal in most countries, it is difficult to know how many “modern day slaves” there are.